New York City Transit President Andy Byford released his “Fast Forward” plan to modernize the New York City Subway last month. Among the proposals in the plan is a commitment to reach full station accessibility within fifteen years – a huge win for riders who are disabled, parents with strollers, the elderly, and many others: Fifty additional stations are to be made accessible in the next five years, and the rest by 2034.
These are hefty commitments, and President Byford likely wouldn’t have made them if accessibility wasn’t top of his agenda. But delivering on these commitments will require more than just funding – it will require a sea change in priority-setting.
Here we outline the institutional areas in most urgent need of reform below; sustained and measurable progress on these issues will send a strong signal to riders that it really is a new day for accessible subways in New York.
Hire staff who experience barriers to accessibility firsthand
Last week, Byford announced the arrival of Alex Elegudin, his pick for a new Senior Advisor for Systemwide Accessibility. This will be an executive-level role with a mandate to pull together all of the accessibility work streams throughout the agency, to be the voice of people with mobility and other accessibility impairments, and to advocate for accessibility across the agency.
Elegudin is a long-time disability advocate who previously served as the accessibility program manager at the city’s Taxi & Limousine Commission. He’ll be well suited to addressing transit’s numerous accessibility challenges because he understands them firsthand.
But Elegudin is only one person. The MTA needs to hire more people with disabilities to coordinate and influence a large number of accessibility design problems, work streams and projects. And the MTA’s board should become more representative of its riders by including people with disabilities to oversee policy well past the tenure of any one transit president.
Address the reliability of the agency’s current crop of elevators
We learned this month that New York City Transit has increased its 12-month elevator availability average to 97.2% –– breaching its target rate of 96.5%. In December, the agency began supplementing its elevator maintenance force to concentrate on particularly unreliable elevators in uptown Manhattan. New York City Transit acknowledges it struggles to hire and retain maintenance talent, in part because it competes with the private sector for elevator maintainer talent. It is up to New York City Transit to supplement the elevator & escalator maintenance workforce with contracted labor where necessary and to offer competitive wages to and strong management of in-house staff to retain talent.
But New York City Transit cannot stop at 97.2% availability; it must instead raise its target for systemwide elevator availability. While 97.2% sounds like an “A” grade, when it comes to elevator availability it translates into far too many encounters with a broken elevator during the average commute. The MTA’s peer transit agencies like Boston’s MBTA have managed to keep elevator availability at 99%. New York can too.
Adopt a streamlined approach to design and construction to deliver accelerated accessibility
This week, the MTA board authorized New York City Transit’s request to issue competitive requests-for-proposals to develop a pool of qualified design-build contractors for work on ADA improvements, including elevator installation. This should lead to a streamlined and flexible approach to elevator construction and design, but proof will be in the results.
Better communication with riders when things go awry
An out of service elevator is a major impediment at any time. However, failing to alert riders with disabilities to out of service elevators is much worse because riders have already begun trips to a station they cannot access. Communication of real-time outage information is paramount in order for these riders to trust they will get where they need to go. The agency will soon debut its new myMTA trip-planning and service information app, billing it as a clearinghouse for updated service information. The app will only be worth its salt if it is used to deliver accurate and updated information to riders, including reroutes required by out of service elevators.